A Whispered Agitation (flash fiction)

photo in public domain*

Last fall I entered the NYC Midnight Microflash Fiction contest. In January, I made it through the first round, and last night I learned that I’ve made it through to the next round! Here’s the story that moved me to the finals. At the end is some of the judge’s feedback.

Assigned genre: Historical Fiction
Action that had to be included: bricklaying
Word that had to be included: step
Time to write the 250 word story: 24 hours

by Joanne Brokaw

Martin filled his trowel with cement, slopped the mortar onto the growing barrier, and topped it with a brick. “You’ll not see that neighbor again, Emily.” More slop. “She’s an agitator.” Another brick.

Emily knew enough to remain silent when her husband was mid-tirade. His word was law, by God, and she best not forget it. But while her lips were quiet, her spirit was not.

Days earlier, that neighbor, Clara, had returned from visiting cousins in Auburn and whispered to Emily rumors of a coming women’s rights movement.

“Can you imagine?” Clara marveled. “To have the vote?”

“That’s preposterous. Surely you’re mistaken. ”

“No, Emily, there’s to be a convention next week. We will be heard.”

For days, dreams of equality girded Emily with confidence. She sewed a new dress; Martin accused her of putting on airs. Her request to see the household ledger was met with icy silence. But it was her utterance of the word “suffrage” that prompted Martin to build the wall.

“You think we don’t know what our wives are up to behind our backs?”

Slop. Brick.

Emily spied Clara on her porch, her black eye and swollen lip visible even at a distance. Clara quickly turned away.

Slop. Brick.

Emily decided. With Martin distracted, she slipped away, donning her bonnet as she walked determinedly to the train station. She stepped up to the ticket counter and pushed a few pilfered coins towards the agent. “One fare to Seneca Falls, please.”


The judges had some nice thing to say about the piece and gave specific, really helpful suggestions. Here’s what they had to say: Continue reading “A Whispered Agitation (flash fiction)”

Election 2016: What would Susan B. Anthony do?

The grave site of Susan B. Anthony, in October 2016.
The grave site of Susan B. Anthony at Mt. Hope Cemetery, in October 2016.

There are just a few days until Election Day and I have to confess that I’m conflicted about what I’m going to do when I get to the ballot box. I’ve been supporting a third party candidate the entire season, but I’m also aware that this could be an historic election. Do I want to use my vote to help put the first woman in the Oval Office?

So I’m asking myself: What would Susan B. Anthony do?

As I’m working on my book about people buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery, I’ve been putting off writing about the famous abolitionist and suffragette. It’s a big story and I’m not sure how to pare it down, how to decide what angle I want to focus on.

I’ve decided that I’m going to visit her grave on Election Day, and start the story there.

Traditionally, on Election Day, people visit Susan B. Anthony’s grave and leave mementos, especially “I voted” stickers. (Side note: the folks at Mt. Hope Cemetery are begging people to NOT put stickers on her headstone. The gum and adhesive damages the fragile stone. My suggestion: be more creative with your token of affection.)

This year, public gatherings are already in the works for Tuesday as groups of people plan to trek to the Anthony grave site and pay their respects to the woman who fought tirelessly for women’s rights.

I suspect that a lot of women will be celebrating the opportunity to vote for the candidate who may actually become the first female President of the United States.

And here’s where I’m conflicted.

The rational part of me wants to vote for the candidate who best represents my views, and that’s not Hillary Clinton. I appreciate and respect her as an accomplished woman, but politically, we’re just not on the same page.

At the same time, to say I had the chance to vote for the first female president of the U.S. and I didn’t take it? Is that what I want to tell my grandchildren? Continue reading “Election 2016: What would Susan B. Anthony do?”

Honor our sister suffragists by voting in today’s primary

Susan B. Anthony's grave, a popular place to visit on election day.
Susan B. Anthony’s grave, a popular place to visit on election day.

It’s primary day in New York. Honor suffragists like Susan B. Anthony, who fought for the passage of the 19th amendment, and vote. Vote your conscience, vote your heart, vote your morals and beliefs. But make sure you vote.

Thank you, lady with the alligator purse.

This photo was taken at Mt. Hope Cemetery. Susan B. Anthony’s grave is located in Section C, Lot 93.

Happy National Women’s Equality Day! (Did you show your breasts in public?)

The Wave (1896) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
The Wave (1896) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Today is National Women’s Equality Day, honoring the anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment to the Constitution on August 26, 1920.

Earlier this week, I blogged about women, freedom and a show called “Dating Naked,” and mused on whether we women have forgotten the fight our foremothers made for equality.

Case in point? In honor of Women’s Equality Day, a group called GoTopless held an event at Venice Beach in California where women were encouraged to show up wearing a Ta Ta top.

Technically, the women were fully clothed, but figuratively? Naked.

Ta Ta Tops make bikini tops that look like a naked breast. How do you feel about seeing a woman wearing this in public?
TaTa Tops make bikini tops that look like a naked breast. How do you feel about seeing a woman wearing this in public? Is the image of naked breasts different than the painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau?

In a press release promoting the event,  Lara Terstenjak, Los Angeles leader of GoTopless, said:

“In this city, as in most places around the world, women still can’t lawfully go bare-chested, although their male counterparts have had that privilege for decades. It’s time to celebrate women’s topless pride in spite of all the silly and unconstitutional restrictions posed by local laws.”

She goes on to further say:

“Imagine if, 100 years ago, women had worn pants with lifelike knees painted on them. Many people in 2014 don’t know it, but women’s knees were considered too indecent to show back then. Today, no one bats an eye at the sight of an uncovered woman’s knee. Soon it will be the same for bare breasts! How silly it is to have to wear painted ones!”

She makes some interesting points. It is silly for a woman to be allowed to wear in public a bikini top designed to look like a naked breast, but not be allowed to bare a naked breast in public. What’s the difference? The Ta Ta Top looks just like a naked female breast (and that’s coming from a man I showed the photo to). Nude beaches are commonplace in other parts of the world.

And why is a naked male torso in public a less sexually charged image than a naked female torso in public? Is it just desensitization? Or are we programed to view the female body in a different light? When does the image of a bare chested woman go from nude to naked, art to indecency? Continue reading “Happy National Women’s Equality Day! (Did you show your breasts in public?)”

50 thoughts on turning 50: #25 Women, freedom and “Dating Naked”

VH1's new show "Dating Naked" premiered in July.
VH1’s new show “Dating Naked” premiered in July. (Source: VH1 pressroom)

Last year, I went to visit the Susan B. Anthony house and mused afterwards about what Susan B. Anthony might have said about the reality show, “The Bachelor”, in which women basically throw themselves at a man in the hopes he’ll pick them to be his wife. I likened it to emotional prostitution and pondered the idea that maybe women have forgotten the battle their foremothers fought for equality and respect.

Yes, women in America now have the right to educate themselves, prosper, and express themselves in ways women 100 years ago could only dream about. But have we taken those rights to such an extreme that we’ve enslaved ourselves to a celebrity driven/sexuality saturated culture?

I bring this up again because I saw a story in today’s entertainment headlines that makes me think yet again that we women have misused our freedom and set women’s rights back a few steps.

This summer, VH1 premiered a series called “Dating Naked”. The premise, according to a press release:  “Do you find love easier when you truly have nothing to hide?”

This season a rotating group of frustrated singles answered the show’s challenge to “bare it all” in the quest for love. After embarking on a series of blind dates, twelve people currently consider themselves “in a relationship” with someone they met on the show … Filmed in a remote exotic locale, each close-ended episode follows a man and a woman both going on three naked dates, including two with other suitors and one with each other.

It is an interesting premise, to consider what would happen if two people were left to woo each other without the material trappings of technology and social conventions. But when you take away the clothing? There are going to be problems.

Today, People.com reports that “Dating Naked” cast member Jessie Nizewitz is suing Viacom, the parent company of VH1 and the channel that airs the show, for $10 million in damages after the producers allegedly failed to blur out a shot of Nizewitz’s crotch.

In other words, the naked contestant on a televised naked dating show is upset because she was shown … well, naked. Continue reading “50 thoughts on turning 50: #25 Women, freedom and “Dating Naked””

What Would Susan B. Say: “The Bachelor”


“I would not object to marriage if it were not that women throw away every plan and purpose of their own life, to conform to the plans and purposes of the man’s life. I wonder if it is woman’s real, true nature always to abnegate self.”

– Susan B. Anthony, letter, 1888 (as quoted in “Failure is Impossible”, by Lynn Sherr)

I’m embarrassed to admit it but I’ve been watching this season of “The Bachelor”. Not because I’m enjoying the show, but because it’s like a massive train wreck that I can’t tear my eyes away from.

Am I the only one who sees this show for what it is: a dating game that sets women’s rights back a hundred years?

If you’re not familiar with the premise of the show, here’s a recap: Handsome Guy is presented with a group of about two dozen women, all who are vying to become Mrs. Handsome Guy. Handsome Guy whittles the group down by wooing the ladies with outings to exotic locales, fancy dinners and romance, and generally trying to get them all to fall in love with him. Once he’s done that, he picks the one he wants and offers her a proposal of marrige. The women, on the other hand, have convinced themselves the day they meet Handsome Guy that they’re desperately in love with him; they then befriend and betray each other, all with the goal of sticking around to the end and hopefully get the coveted marriage proposal.

It looks very much like emotional prostitution. Continue reading “What Would Susan B. Say: “The Bachelor””

I’d blame Lottie, if she wasn’t dead

This is the family plot where Susan B. Anthony rests in Mt. Hope Cemetery.

I’d blame Lottie for this obsession, if she wasn’t a total stranger. And dead.

You remember Lottie. She was the name on the headstone at Mt. Hope Cemetery, the lonely headstone in a field of weeds, no dates, no last name, just “My Lottie.”

Bandit and I had started walking at Mt. Hope, and I’d already been captivated by the stories on the graves, especially by the stones that listed several children who had died. I’d done a little digging at the library, but it wasn’t until I met Lottie that things took a serious turn.

“Met” being a relative term; like I said, she’s dead.

On the day I met Lottie, I’d been exploring among a section of the cemetery that plays host to some impressive obelisks and monuments, each appearing to outdo the other for prominence, much the way the souls who rested beneath may have done in life.

The monstrously huge monument of Michael Filon; see Bailey in the front to understand its enormity. Who is Michael Filon and why does he deserve such a huge monument?

In particular was one monument that stands almost as tall as a two story house with the name Filon boldly emblazoned on it. I had no clue who Michael Filon was, but apparently he was some hot stuff, at least in his time.

Around the corner from Mr. Filon is the family plot of Susan B. Anthony. Understated and reserved, it doesn’t begin to hint at the significance of the woman buried there. Other than the marker and two small American flags, you could walk right by the plot and not realize you’d just passed history. (*There’s more about Michael Filon this at the end of this blog post.)

And then there was Lottie.

There are a lot of famous people buried at Mt. Hope, people who made significant contributions to American culture, politics, society. There are also a lot of people who thought they made contributions and so honored themselves with grotesquely huge monuments.

But my heart is for the nobodies. And  with no name or dates or other identifying marks on her headstone, Lottie was as nobody as nobody could be.

As you might remember from an earlier blog post about some of the headstones I’d been investigating , I learned that Lottie is Charlotte Harcourt, who died at the age of 15 on  29 Sept 1861 of neuralgia of the stomach.

I know nothing else about her, but I know that at least she is not forgotten.

This obession might have ended there had a librarian at the local history section of the Rochester Public Library not said something that has changed my life: “Why aren’t you researching your own family tree?”

I’m pretty sure I told her that there wasn’t anyone famous in my family, that we hadn’t made any significant contributions to the world, that while I’d done some research a few years earlier I really didn’t think it would be that interesting since we were just nobody.

I know, did you see the light bulb go off over my head, too?

Here I was, spending time and effort to ensure that the name of this total stranger, My Lottie, wasn’t lost forever. If I liked to champion nobodies, well, my family tree is full of them.

And so it began. I pulled out the old folders. The library edition of Ancestry.com became my new best friend. I started taking notes, bugging the librarian, and before long I was knee deep in names, dates, questions and a whole lot of fascinating stuff about regular people. No inventors or politicians (at least not until the 21st century; on the Italian side, I found a cousin of my mother’s who recently ran for mayor in her town) or world changers. Just people who were born, lived, married, worked, played and died.

Just like millions of other Americans.

The truth is that the people who make headlines are few and far between. I think we forget about that in our media-driven, celebrity-obsessed culture. We revere singers and actors and politicians and people who manage the once-in-a-million achievement while the garbage men and factory workers and construction flag men and secretaries and Walmart greeters and other working class Joes do the bulk of the labor, and keep the country and economy moving.

A bunch of nobodies. Just like me!

Good grief, that makes me feel good.

See, I turned 48 a few weeks ago, and have been wallowing in my “I’ve done nothing with my life” self pity, lamenting my lack of contributions to the world while my clock is slowly ticking down. But I’m beginnig to realize that I’m not “nobody.” I’m actually everybody.

(As I typed that, the Beatle’s song “Nowhere Man” came onto the radio. I am not kidding. )

So for much of the last few months – and by “much” I mean almost every waking minute – I’ve been meeting my ancestors and even connecting with living relatives.

I thought that as I researched I’d share some of the stories I’m finding. Aren’t you excited? Continue reading “I’d blame Lottie, if she wasn’t dead”

Stories from the grave – another walk through Mt. Hope Cemetery

It was a beautiful day to meander among the headstones.

Bandit and I went out for a meander through Mt. Hope Cemetery today, mostly so I could clear my head and shake off the negative vibes I’ve picked up over the last month or so from some know-it-alls and jack-asses I’ve been forced to interact with.

That’s a pretty way to start a blog post, isn’t it?

You know I love the cemetery, so even though the temperatures hovered around 40 degrees on this late April morning, I  enjoyed wandering around the headstones, taking photos and reading epitaphs and wondering about the people who reside there.

Take, for example, the headstone from the Hommel family. I was struck by the age of their son Oscar, who died in 1878 at 7 years old. So I snapped a photo.

When I got home, though, I realized that the date of Oscar’s birth is the same as his mother’s death. That got me wondering if perhaps Regina died giving birth.

In general, I hate technology, but in situations like this I’m grateful for online databases like the UR’s records on the interments at Mt. Hope Cemetery. A little digging showed me that Oscar died December 13, 1877 of meningitis (although is tombstone says 1878). His mother, Regina, died December 21, 1871 of typhoid fever. George died March 13, 1879 of consumption.

So while I don’t know what month Oscar was born, we can assume his father, George, was left with a child under a year old after losing his wife Regina to typhoid fever. And then he  lost his son a few years later. Continue reading “Stories from the grave – another walk through Mt. Hope Cemetery”

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